Evelyn Cheesman in the field

Lucy Evelyn Cheesman in the field

Lucy Evelyn Cheesman: the woman who walked

Whether liaising with cannibals or escaping giant spider webs, Cheesman took the challenges of perilous fieldwork - and patriarchal views - in her stride.

The tenacious collector and adventuress knew a thing or two about resilience.

Lucy Evelyn Cheesman (1881-1969), OBE, was an English entomologist best known for her extensive solo expeditions in the South West Pacific.

Over the course of her trips, she collected around 70,000 specimens of insects, plants and other animals for the Natural History Museum.

Lucy Evelyn Cheesman in the field wearing sack cloth trousers

Beulah Garner, Senior Curator of Beetles at the Museum, has worked closely with some of Evelyn Cheesman's collections.

'Evelyn was the first Western scientist to thoroughly explore the biogeography of the Southwest Pacific Islands and to link the evolution of the fauna to the Asian subcontinent,' Beulah says.

'She identified a gap in our knowledge and the Museum's collections, and just set out to remedy it.

'She was never properly employed by the Museum to do the work that she did, but she was incredibly determined, and her achievements have undoubtedly helped open the door for women in science.'

Frogs in her pockets

Raised in rural Kent in an Edwardian home, Cheesman's appetite for fieldwork began in the nursery.

Encouraged by her mother, her early expeditions involved collecting flowers and moss, as well as glow worms to work out what made them glow.

An education

Cheesman had set her mind on becoming a veterinary surgeon, but her family's limited funds were devoted to her brother Robert's education.

The law was also an obstacle as in 1906 the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons wasn't yet admitting women.

After several years working as a governess in England and Germany, in 1912 she was sponsored by a friend to train as a canine nurse and took up work at a canine hospital just outside of Croydon, south London.

War work and suffrage

When the First World War started, Evelyn was employed to use her fluency in German, which she had acquired working as a governess, to help unmask British companies that were friendly to Germany.  

At this time she would frequently spend her lunch hours in the relative tranquillity of the Natural History Museum.

When the law finally changed in 1919 to allow women to train as veterinarians, lawyers and civil servants, she had already moved on to new things.

The war opened up some opportunities for working women who proved they could do the same jobs as men when given the chance, but according to Beulah, Cheesman really was in a league of her own.  

'She was such a fierce personality, and so independent, I think she would have gone ahead and done exactly what she did, regardless of whether women's suffrage happened or not.'

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Sphingnotus insignis beetle type specimen from the collection Cheesman donated to the Museum.

London Zoo's first female Insect House curator

Cheesman became the Assistant Curator of Insects at ZSL London Zoo in 1917, and in 1920 was made the first female Insect House Curator.

At the time, the Insect House was dilapidated and almost empty of live specimens.

Evelyn acquired a new stock of insects using a billycan and net, and invited children near and far to contribute.

Lucy Evelyn Cheesman in the field with a butterfly net

Lucy Evelyn Cheesman with her field kit including a walking stick and net

She was also able to acquire some exotic species from Covent Garden fruiterers who sometimes found spiders lurking in their bananas.

Filled with newly bred butterflies and native British fauna, the Insect House thrived under her care.

Expeditions

In 1923 Evelyn went on her first expedition, to the Galápagos Islands. Aboard a rolling ship she acquired important new skills for collecting including how to skin and preserve lizards and birds, and mount mosquitos for Museum collections.

Not long after arriving in the Galápagos she split from her expedition group to explore and collect at her own pace.

From the Galápagos she went on to collect in the Marquesas Islands and Tuamotu Atolls in 1924 and an expedition to the Society Islands in 1925.

When she officially left the zoo in 1926, she made many further expeditions in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and South West Pacific including New Guinea and New Caledonia.

A milestone in her career occurred when, at age 48, Cheesman embarked on her first expedition to collect insects and small animals for the Natural History Museum.

According to Beulah, Cheesman was a very thorough collector:

'Cheesman went back time and time again to the South West Pacific and in different seasons and as a result her collections tell us a great deal about species dispersal, extinction, climate change and of course the biogeography and the evolutionary history of those islands.'

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Signed photograph of Evelyn Cheesman sheltering under a bark umbrella

Trials and tribulations

Conditions were a constant challenge for Cheesman, who battled with bouts of tropical disease such as dengue and malaria and stumbled across deadly snakes and spiders.

She once got so caught up in the low-hanging webs of the Nephila spider on Gorgona Island, she had to spend several hours freeing herself with a nail file. After this experience, the intrepid explorer never travelled without a machete at her side.

However, it was the leech in her teapot during a trip to the Cyclops Mountains in New Guinea that Evelyn considered her absolute personal limit.

On a budget

Cheesman's solo expeditions were partially funded by the Natural History Museum but were for the most part, self-funded. 

Her budget for 12 months in the New Hebrides (1928-30) was £300, which covered return fares via Australia, hire of carriers, food and mailing of specimens.

She supplemented her meagre income by writing 16 popular books chronicling her adventures and discoveries.  

The woman who walks

Cheesman fostered good relations with the indigenous people she encountered. Their knowledge of local wildlife, trails and hazards was invaluable both to her work and safety.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the High Commissioner of the New Hebrides were sceptical about a woman's safety. They tried to prevent Cheesman from travelling alone, but she would not be deterred.

'The best evidence of her good relationships with indigenous people is in her contribution to our collections,' says Beulah. 'That and the fact she survived. She wouldn't be around to tell the story if she wasn't trusted, so she must have been getting along with people. 

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Dicraspeda cheesmanae type specimen named after Evelyn Cheesman when it was discovered by Museum scientists amongst her collection in 2008

'She also developed some notoriety as having protection against spirits as she frequently went to forbidden places and survived.

'She was very interested in indigenous customs and was very respectful of them in her writings, which are markedly different from the majority of imperial exploratory literature.'

In New Guinea the locals gave her a name that reflected her rejection of the cumbersome sedan chairs typically used by white women - they called her 'the woman who walks'.

Gifts from a cannibal king

During her travels in the New Hebrides she stayed with a tribe of cannibals that had rarely been approached by Westerners before. She was able to establish such good relations that in 1930 she received diplomatic gifts for King George V from King Ringapat of Malekula, the leader of the cannibals.

The gifts, which are today kept at the British Museum, included a decorated spear and a necklace of hand-carved beads.

Unretiring

Cheesman contributed more than 70,000 specimens to the collections of the Natural History Museum. Many of them were new to the Museum and a few were also new to Western science.

She was made an Honorary Associate of the Department of Entomology in 1948 by the Board of Trustees.

Her final expedition was to Vanuatu in 1953, at the age of 73 after a hip replacement.

In 1955 Evelyn Cheesman was awarded an OBE and a Civil List pension for her contributions to entomology, finally giving her some financial security.

In an interview given at the time of the award, she is reported to have said, 'We drop down, or get run over, but we never retire.'

She continued to work at the Museum, writing and classifying specimens, until her death in 1969.

A collection that keeps giving

More than 40 years after her death, scientists are still identifying new species and making discoveries among the specimens she collected.

A pressed flower found in the Museum's collection was found in 2013 to be a new species of orchid. The blue colour of its flowers makes it unique among the approximately 26,000 known species of orchids.

This blue epiphytic orchid was collected at the summit of the extinct volcano Mount Nok, on the jungle-covered Indonesian island of Waigeo

Type specimen of of Dendrobium azureum Schuit from the Museum's herbarium. This blue epiphytic orchid was collected at the summit of the extinct volcano Mount Nok, on the jungle-covered Indonesian island of Waigeo.

Although the colour is barely noticeable now due to the pressing and drying process, the accompanying label notes, 'Orchid growing on trees, flowers deep sky blue'

Scientists also continue to name new species in Cheesman's honour, with at least 69 examples present within the Museum's insect collection alone.

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